Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Ursvaal Exchange Begins

It's out!  The second of the Black River Chronicles, The Ursvaal Exchange, is available to buy in print and e-book as of the end of last week.  If you enjoyed Level One, I genuinely think you'll love this one; it builds in so many fun ways on the groundwork Mike and I laid there, and develops the gang and the world they inhabit in some directions that I for one find really interesting.  And if you're new to the series, I'm confident that this second book stands well on its own - though it would probably make more sense to just grab them both and begin from the beginning!

I've talked so much about this novel by now that I think, right here, I'll back off to touch on an aspect I've never officially addressed.  Eagle-eyed readers might notice that there's one name rather than two on the cover this time, and that it's mine.  This is because my co-creator and publisher, Mike Wills, decided that his input into the series doesn't warrant taking a full author co-credit.  And while there's perhaps no easy answer as to what does or doesn't constitute co-authoring a novel, I didn't want to let that pass without taking an opportunity to point out how, regardless of what names go where, this series has been Mike's baby from the beginning.  In truth, the initial concept was all his, and there are countless moments and details that were either direct suggestions or that spun out of me musing on his suggestions and off-hand comments.  (Just as an example, Hule's entire arc this time around comes from a detail that I felt bad about not being able to work into Level One!)

The point being, though I'm now listed as the sole author of these books and will be going forward, in my heart The Black River Chronicles will always be Mike's playground: one he built the foundations of and then, effectively, paid me to run around in.  Writing professionally isn't always the easiest of jobs, despite what you may have heard, but there's such a thing as a dream writing gig, and for me, this is it; I'm utterly in love with this world and this concept and these characters, and it's a joy to be spinning these tales.  Had Mike never pondered where fighters, wizards, rogues and rangers learn the basic skills to do the things they do, I'd never have met Hule, Arein, Tia and Durren; had he never left me trying to figure out how the four of them could go on multiple quests in one novel without spending half the book wandering the countryside, there would be no Pootle.

And I have big, big plans for Pootle!  But perhaps I'd do better not to spoiler the third book - because, yes, there's going to be a third book, which I'm plotting out now and will be starting early in the new year.  Which, come to think of it, is also pretty major news, right?

In the meantime, there's The Ursvaal Exchange - which you can buy is print and e-book in the US here and in the UK here.  And for those who haven't seen the blurb yet, here's a little insight into what our second chronicle is about:
Student ranger Durren Flintrand had thought he was settling in at the Black River Academy for Swordcraft and Spellcraft. But when rebellious rogue Tia Locke uncovers a horrifying secret in the dungeons beneath the school, Durren quickly realises that the challenges he's faced so far were scant preparation for what lies ahead.  Along with magic-averse wizard Arein and blunt but good-hearted fighter Hule, he and Tia find themselves on Black River's first student exchange program: they're being sent to the Shadow Mountain Academy in the dank and dismal land of Ursvaal, and they're going whether they like it or not.
At Shadow Mountain, things are done differently. No longer is Durren a ranger but a bard, despite his lacking the slightest notion of what being a bard involves. And not only that but Tia is acting even more strangely than usual, Hule is taking being a paladin awfully seriously, and Arein has a new party member with ideas very different to her own to contend with, in the shape of irascible cleric Cailliper Ancrux - who wants nothing less than to be involved with Shadow Mountain's unpopular newcomers.
The four Black River students will have to relearn everything they thought they knew; but the threats surrounding them aren't about to wait. Can they hope to survive an uprising of the dead, the winged horror that haunts this desolate land, and an ancient plot risen from the blackest depths of Ursvaal's history? And even if the somehow should, can Durren possibly overcome his tone deafness and learn to play the lute?

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

On Invisible Words (Pt. 2)

I talked last time (and a very long time ago it was!) about why I'm not convinced that invisible words - that is, words so common that the reader's eye skims over them, effectively rendering them impossible to overuse - are really a thing, and how, even if they are, there remain good reasons to keep an eye out for those words that you're prone to over-favouring.

This is a dangerous topic to discuss too much, of course; I'd much rather readers don't go through my books with a fine-toothed comb hunting for all the instances of lazy word over-use, because I know damn well they'll find a few - and that despite the very best of efforts of me, my beta-readers, proofreaders, editors and copy editors.  Mistakes always slip through, and eventually you have to reconcile to the fact that every book needs to be called finished at some point.

Nevertheless, by the same measure you can but try, and with the second of the Black River Chronicles - and even more so with my work-in-progress White Thorne - I've been mixing up my approach in the hope that new tools or techniques might shed fresh light on the problem.  The degree of success hasn't been everything I might have hoped, and I still feel there must be a piece of software out there I don't know about that would make this job a thousand times easier.  (I've heard Scrivener suggested, but no-one seems altogether sure.)  At any rate, this is where I've got to so far...

I began with word clouds.  You know word clouds, right?  If not, here's one I made for The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.  Because it turns out free word cloud generators are awfully easy to find on the internet (this came from WorditOut) and a useful side effect of their functionality is that they list words in order of usage.  Plug your novel in there and, hey presto, you've got an insight into the frequency of your word usage, and from there it's just a matter of figuring out what you're okay with - eliminating every instance of "the" is likely to prove a tall order! - and what you hadn't realized you'd been doing and are ashamed about enough to address.

Only, the word cloud solution has its limits, and one of them is that the data it throws out, not being at all intended for fiction-editing purposes, isn't that well-suited.  So I moved on.  My next port of call was Edit Minion, which I'm a lot more inclined to recommend; maybe not so much for this precise problem but in general it's worthy of a gander, and where else are you going to find out if you're overusing Shakespearean quotes?

The problem remained much the same, though: trying to use a bit of software for a role it was never really geared for.  And by then I was running out of time to waste on hunting for solutions, and in need of something guaranteed to do the trick.  So in the end, I went old-school; like, really damn old-school.  And the tool I've ended up relying on most in recent weeks is the humble Find and Replace function in Word, which has a great deal more depth and functionality than you might ever have realised; I know I hadn't a clue until I really started playing.  But if you want to, for example, highlight every single instance of a word throughout your manuscript, then that's chump change for Find and Replace.  Or how about highlighting every different form of a word?  Or homophones?  Once you dig into it, Find and Replace is kind of awesome.

Anyway, the battle continues.  I've a long - and ever-growing - list of words that I know I use too often, and I'd heartily recommend to every author that they start developing one too, because it's steadily training me to vary up my vocabulary, and to seek out the right words rather than the obvious ones.  It's tough work, frankly, it's no fun and it's certainly not the sort of playful creativity that we all imagine writing's supposed to involve - but it does the trick.

Then again, maybe there's an even better way to be found.  And if I ever stumble across it, I promise to share in part 3!

Friday, 17 November 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 28

If there's one thing that sucks about doing these posts, it's that sometimes I really want to just chill out and watch some nineties anime, and I can't because I know I won't have a chance to review it while I can still remember what it was about.  That's been especially true lately, with my blogging time alarmingly scarce in the face of actual, proper work and real, meaningful news.  And that also means that the to-watch shelf is beginning to groan under a quite remarkable collection of hard-to-find releases that I've been grabbing whenever a cheap copy happens to surface.  If I'm long past searching for hidden gold, I suspect there's at least a bit of hidden bronze and maybe even a little hidden silver sitting there waiting.

Anyway, that's all the moaning I'll do about having exciting things happening that clog up my blog space!  Nineties anime, you'll always be my first love, but I'm afraid you don't pay the bills - and indeed, you routinely add to them!  But at least I managed to find time for Lupin the Third: The Secret of Twilight Gemini, A.LI.CEUrusei Yatsura Movie 5: The Final Chapter and Knights of Ramune...

Lupin the Third: The Secret of Twilight Gemini, 1996, dir: Gisaburō Sugii

You might argue that the unkindest thing you can do to a franchise is to let a certified genius loose on it; what better way to make every effort before or after sink into mediocrity?  And while 1979's The Castle of Cagliostro isn't a high-water mark in the career of master director Hayao Miyazaki, it's still a damn fun film, and better work than just about anyone else could have produced with the same material.

I mention this only because I couldn't stop thinking it as I watched The Secret of Twilight Gemini.

At this point I should probably admit that I don't even like Lupin the Third; I find the character kind of annoying, and what I've seen of the franchise away from Miyazaki's seminal effort to be obnoxious and excruciatingly sexist.  And so it goes with The Secret of Twilight Gemini, which I bought imagining it to be another theatrical release, only to discover that it was a mere TV special that someone decided deserved a Western DVD release.

It didn't.  It's predictable, disposable, often tiresome nonsense, with not much of a story and some intermittently horrid animation.  And it really is startlingly misogynistic, especially in regards to recurring series character Fujiko Mine, who spends all of about eight frames fully clothed.  This is the sort of thing where, had it come on the television when you were a kid, you'd have been vaguely amused for an hour and a half, except for how your fragile young mind would probably have been blown by the appearance of so many crudely-drawn bare breasts.  But now, more than two decades later, if you're not for some reason devoted to the misadventures of debonair cretin thief Lupin, I struggle to imagine any reason to revisit such a lackluster effort.

All right, the music's quite nice in places.  The film makes solid use of its Moroccan setting, as do the occasionally lovely backgrounds; there's the sense that the budget stretched to a bit of a research trip, or at least a copy of the relevant Rough Guide.  Though the flip side of this being set in North Africa is that the whole business comes off as depressingly racist; there turns out to be a plot reason for the female lead being white and blond despite supposedly being from an ancient Moroccan tribe, but that doesn't change how much she sticks out among all the obnoxious Arab stereotypes the film throws up elsewhere.  But, oh right, this was the paragraph where I was trying to be positive, right?  Well, the dub is shockingly decent, to the point where I almost stopped wishing for subtitles instead.  And, yeah, some nice music and pretty backgrounds.  That's about all I've got.

A.LI.CE, 1999, dir: Kenichi Maejima

If I'm being honest, there's a good chance that this one actually came out in 2000 and is thus not nineties anime by anyone's definition.  But the IMDB lists it as having been released in 1999, and anyway, I refuse to have watched it specifically to review here and then to find out all that effort was for nothing.  Because, yes, watching a CGI movie from 1999 (or even 2000) can be a heck of a chore.  This is, after all, a year (or two) before what I'd argue to be the first Pixar film that you can still enjoy today without cringing a little at the animation, Monster's Inc.  And this was an era, you may remember, when the technology was advancing at a rate of knots, so that a gap of a year or two is nothing to be sniffed at.

With all of that said, A.LI.CE still looks like crap.  And I suspect it more or less looked like crap when it came out.  After all, Final Fantasy IX was released in 2000, and the CG cut-scenes there are head and shoulders above every moment of Maejima's movie.  There are odd shots that haven't aged too badly, but you could count then on both hands and probably keep a couple of fingers free.  It doesn't help that the characters suffer worst.  While they're hardly the dead-eyed abominations that some later Western movies would produce - yes, The Polar Express, I'm looking at you, now get back in that uncanny valley! - they certainly don't look a damn thing like human beings.

Anyway, this is where I hoped I'd be saying that, despite resembling something the dog threw up after eating too much plastic and shiny things, A.LI.CE is redeemed by its story.  But nope, it's not.  It's maybe even a little bit dragged down by its story, since the narrative only really functions at all when it's focusing upon its characters - who are at least not offensive to spend time around, assuming you close your eyes.  But the one thing that won't distract anyone from somewhat horrid computer-generated animation is a derivative, overly tangled tale that ties itself into at least one knot too many because someone saw Planet of the Apes and reasoned that the only way to travel into the future is accidentally via space shuttle.

Yet I don't altogether resent the time I spent with A.LI.CE.  I certainly don't recommend it, hell no, but it at least fit well with the whole cultural archeology aspect of these posts.  There's something fascinating about watching a film from less than two decades ago that feels so irretrievably lost to the dustbin of time.  Even crappy hand-drawn animation has its moments of charm, but CG films from before the point when CG became an adequate tool for the making of films are considerably less watchable than, say for example, silent cinema from a century ago.  With traditional animation, A.LI.CE would have been mere silly fun, maybe even quite likable silly fun - and it sort of even is, in places - but it's hard not to get distracted by the sheer goddamn ugliness on display.

Urusei Yatsura Movie 5: The Final Chapter, 1988, dir: Satoshi Dezaki

We know, of course, that the fifth Urusei Yatsura movie would not in any way be the final chapter, because I've already reviewed the sixth film, Always My Darling.  Nevertheless, in all the ways that mean anything, this right here is the end of the Urusei Yatsura anime, based as it is on the final story arc of the Manga.

And what an ending!  I'd already decided by this point that I had no regrets about splashing out on these six DVDs, but that they conclude on such a near-perfect note is the icing on an already very icy cake.  For a start, The Final Chapter looks splendid, with a return to a standard of cinematic-quality animation we haven't seen since way back in Beautiful Dreamer - and frankly, four years is no small time in the development of anime as an art form, so if you wanted to try and convince me that this is the best-looking entry in the series, I certainly wouldn't fight you.

Plotwise, The Final Chapter isn't exactly ambitious: indeed, the elements are entirely familiar to someone who has, like me, only a cursory knowledge of the franchise.  So there's yet another invading suitor, yet another excuse to split up alien princess Lum and her sleazy human darling Moroboshi, and yet another take on the game of tag that sparked all of this madness in the first place.  But really, would we want anything but the familiar at this point?  A tale as weird and experimental as the aforementioned Beautiful Dreamer would be hugely inappropriate, and it's not as though there aren't original ingredients in the mix: for me, the mushroom-based technology and the pig chariot were particular highlights, but, this being Urusei Yatsura, there's no shortage of odd ideas scattered about.

Really, the worst you could say is that events get a bit exhausting in places - by the midpoint, I was certain I'd watched an entire film's worth of plot - but the movie levels out for a surprisingly emotional and, dare I say it, even rather insightful finale, which treats Lum and Moroboshi's relationship with just the right degree of seriousness while not trying to disguise that they are essentially dreadful people who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near each other.  Oh, and did I mention that it's funny?  I mean, not consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but I was chuckling at regular intervals, and often because that gorgeous animation allows for plenty of subtle (or not so subtle) sight gags.

Of course, you'd have to be a bit mad to introduce yourself to the Urusei Yatsura megafranchise with a film called The Final Chapter, and so I'm probably preaching to the converted here; indeed, to converts who had their epiphany nearly three whole decades ago.  So all I'll say is that, if you're cherry-picking your way through the movies, this one's essential, along with - if we're being harsh - Beautiful Dreamer and Remember My Love.  If we weren't being harsh, I'd chuck Only You in there as well, and add that it's quite staggering that there isn't a bad movie among the six.  So really, the thing to do is just to go out and track down the lot, and discover why there remains such an insane amount of love out there for this whole Urusei Yatsura business.

Knights of Ramune, 1997, dir: Yoshinori Sayanna

I confess, I was expecting Knights of Ramune to be terrible and ... well, to a degree it was, I suppose, if I'm being objective.  I mean, it's another title that's grown mildly notorious for showing more animated skin than is reasonable or necessary, and there's no getting past the amount of gratuitous fan service on display.  And again I'm reminded of how much I hate that term, because I'm a fan and there's nothing about the weirdly-proportioned characters in Knights of Ramune that's remotely titillating, however many times they strip off for the most tenuous of reasons!  I'd have felt a great deal more serviced if the creators had just binned that entire aspect of the show and focused on everything else, because everything else is - well, kind of good, actually.

I mean, not great.  But the tale of holy virgins Cacao and Parfait, who finds themselves tasked to find a prophesied saviour of the galaxy only to discover that said saviour is a warmongering scumbag who gets his kicks from molesting his female crew members, is actually quite involving and original.  Cacao and Parfait are charming protagonists, Parfait particularly, who's a likable goof of the sort that nineties anime did so well, and it's nice to see a three hour OVA that actually has three hours of story to tell, instead of busying itself with fluff.  There are meaningful twists and turns along the way, and if some of them rely a bit heavily on a knowledge of a preceding series that I suspect was never released outside of Japan, nevertheless it's engaging stuff.

By about the third episode, the nudity largely fades into the background and loses any trace of naughtiness, which I suspect isn't what the creators intended.  Or maybe it was; there's the constant impression of a team trying to rise above the low bar they've been set.  The performances, direction, design, and everything else really, prove a great deal better than could be expected of a three hour show selling itself on the prospect of jiggling, anatomically improbable breasts.  In fact, the sci-fi elements are sort of terrific, and there's a fine little mech show struggling to fight its way out beneath the surface.  There's a brilliantly catchy opening theme too, and the animation is of that reliably good variety that never gets the appreciation it deserves; it's not a visually stunning show, but it's a visually engaging one, sure enough.

Yet it's hard to recommend.  It's not just all the fan service, because after all there must presumably be people out there who find that appealing, and it's pretty innocuous at the end of the day.  But there's also all the sexualised violence that the villainous Ramunes dishes out, which the show can never decide how it wants to present, or how much it wants to condemn.  Again, there are signs that someone somewhere would have liked to treat the material more seriously, and there's actually an interesting subplot going on with Ramunes and his devoted, oppressed harem - but that doesn't change how creepy and unpleasant things gets in the moment.

Despite its manifest flaws, I enjoyed Knights of Ramune quite a bit, but I really have no idea if anyone else would.  Certainly the tiny handful of reviews I've managed to dig up would suggest not.  Though the one that criticizes it for trying to meld Slayers and Gundam gets pretty close to nailing what I enjoyed, with the difference that where that reviewer felt the show failed utterly, I couldn't help but be drawn to it's baffling meld of high-concept, mech-driven SF and daft, light-hearted comedy.  And maybe it's only the dubious benefit of hindsight that makes the smashing together of nineties anime clichés seem appealing, but what the heck; this blog series is about nothing if it's not about the dubious benefits of hindsight!


Not a great batch, all told, but I'm not bitter.  Urusei Yatsura was a fine finale to an excellent series of movies and Knights of Ramune was a burst of silly fun at a point when I really needed some silly fun.  Sometimes that's enough, right?

As noted above, there really is a heck of a lot of stuff waiting for me to review, so I haven't a clue what comes next, or whether it'll be any good.  But for the first time in a considerable number of posts, I feel hopeful!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26, Part 27]

Sunday, 5 November 2017

A Taste of The Ursvaal Exchange

It occurred to Mike and I that, with the release of The Black River Chronicles: The Ursvaal Exchange just around the corner, people out there might be interesting in reading a little sample of it beforehand.  It's still a day or two off being handed in, but basically I'm just proof-reading and the book's finished; so if you're reading this post then you're one of the very first people to get a look at it!  Without further ado, here's the opening scene...
So far, Durren thought - as he dodged to avoid a wad of saliva that splashed with a hiss against the trunk of the tree beside him - level two was turning out to be an awful lot like level one.
"Watch out for their spit!" he yelled to no-one in particular. "It burns."
"We wouldn't have to watch out if someone hadn't picked a campsite near a swamp," snapped back Tia.
Durren withdrew a hasty pace. The thing before him was monstrous: its slit eyes were yellow and bulbous, its mouth was a gash almost too wide for its head, its pale throat beat with a hypnotic pulse, and its skin was a crust of mottled purple. Nevertheless, despite the fact that what he was looking at was big as a large dog, he knew that the creature was basically a toad. And he was struggling to feel really intimidated by a giant toad.
Then the monster opened its mouth - the sight of that gaping cavity was almost paralyzing - and Durren barely had a moment to react as its tongue flicked out. He threw himself left, and the cord of pink flesh whipped past his ear, speckling him with stinging dribbles of saliva.
All right, he admitted to himself, that was intimidating.
Durren just kept to his feet. Nevertheless, he managed to free his bow from his shoulder and nock an arrow to the string, almost in the same smooth motion. That done, he spared a glance to make sure the others were all intact.
Hule was over to his right, and the big fighter already had his sword in hand. His expression was dour, though; he didn't look half as pleased as he normally did at the prospect of putting the weapon to use.
Arein was close to Hule, and the dwarfish wizard was conspicuously not casting any spells. Durren had hoped she was finally getting over her resistance to using magic, but apparently not today.
Tia, meanwhile, was to his left, the black of her cloak camouflaging her amid the shade of the trees. That she was still here at all surprised him; her first instinct as a rogue tended to be to vanish and attend to matters on her own.
All three of them were retreating towards the center of the clearing where they'd made their fire and raised their two tents, and Durren did the same - if only to get out of range of that hideous tongue. He dared one more glance, this time seeking their observer: the leathery, one-eyed entity that Arein, for reasons that made sense solely to her, had chosen to name Pootle. He spotted the little orb hovering near the treetops, staring down at them with grave attention.
In theory, someone back at the academy was watching them via the spell attuned to Pootle, and in theory they'd send help if the situation should grow too dangerous. But the five of them had been in some exceedingly dangerous situations before now and help had been conspicuous by its absence, so Durren wasn't holding his breath.
After a half-dozen steps, there was nowhere left to retreat to. Durren could feel the canvas of the nearest tent pressing against his ankle. He didn't like the idea of killing these dumb beasts, which were only being hostile because they knew no better. Do no harm unless harm be done was one of the Black River Academy's many cryptic mantras, and they'd been taught from the outset that their weapons were a final recourse, to be used when options such as talking and running were thoroughly exhausted.
Well, they were surrounded on all sides, so they wouldn't be running, and while Durren was no expert on giant toads, he was confident that their unusual properties didn't extend to making conversation.
Then the choice was out of his hands. As though with one mind, the toads were advancing from the shade of the clearing's outer edge. They moved in flabby hops that made their entire bodies quiver and covered a distance Durren could hardly believe. The one that had picked him out closed half the gap between them in a single leap. Barely had it touched the ground before it was in the air again and sailing towards him, its cavernous maw stretched wide.
Durren threw himself lengthwise and loosed his arrow. He heard the slap of the toad's landing, but didn't get to see whether his shot had flown true until he rolled back to his feet. The toad had come to rest on the nearer tent, the one that was his and Hule's. Its impact had collapsed the canvas wall, tearing the guy ropes loose. Durren's arrow had entered through the creature's throat and exited above its right eye; he could see where the metal head jutted, dripping violet ichor. Sprawled with arms and legs protruding, the toad's body practically covered the deflated tent.
Durren's first thought was, Now where am I meant to sleep? His second was the realization that the animal was dead and that he had killed it.
To his right, Hule was hacking at a cluster of three toads, all of which were managing to dodge aside with startling agility. Arein was waving her staff in the face of another, which seemed to Durren a singular waste of the most powerful tool at their disposal.
He considered telling her so, but by then a second toad had him in its goggle-eyed sights; he was alerted by a sizzle and a wet splatter, which he recognized for the sound of acid saliva striking the surviving tent. The culprit was glaring at him, in as much as an oversized amphibian was capable of glaring. Its mouth hung open, ready to unleash more spit or perhaps to unfurl its bullwhip tongue.
Durren cursed beneath his breath. Their actual quest had gone so smoothly - too smoothly, it seemed now. They'd been sent to sweep and clear some old mine workings supposedly infested with goblins, but they'd soon realized that the goblins had departed long ago, leaving only foulness and clutter to testify to their residence. Nevertheless, they'd explored from top to bottom, and Hule had insisted on drawing a map, even though Tia was adamant that the mining company would certainly have more accurate maps of their own.
But reaching level two, they'd been told, meant new challenges, and one of those was that they could no longer simply have Pootle transport them back to the academy once their quest was complete. Now they were to camp the night in the wilderness and travel the next day to a given extraction point.
All of which should have been straightforward - except that barely had they raised their tents and set a fire when the toads had found them.
Nearby, Arein yelped. Durren's initial impulse was to run and help her; the moment's distraction was enough that, when the toad spat again, he almost failed to duck aside in time. Immediately it seized upon the opportunity to hop closer - so that its mouth was suddenly right in front of him, like a fleshy passage into some awful netherworld. Durren's shock sent the arrow he loosed wide, grazing the creature's warty head and leaving a streak of violet, but otherwise merely making the beast angrier than it already was.
There was something unreasonably menacing about an enraged giant toad. Though Durren knew he should grasp for another arrow or for his short sword, he chose instead to stumble backwards, until a wash of heat alerted him to the fact that there was nowhere left to go - not with their campfire directly behind him. To right and left he was conscious of the others fighting, and instinct assured him that they too were being driven back. Hemmed in and encircled, they'd be in serious trouble.
Durren expected the toad to press its advantage; one good hop and it would be on him. Rather, it shifted sideways, keeping the same distance, its springy limbs unsuited to such careful maneuvering. Durren wouldn't have known where to begin in reading toad physiognomy, yet something in the way its eyes flickered told him it was troubled. Maybe his arrow had deterred the purple monstrosity after all, or maybe - 
"Fire!" Durren cried. Realizing that word alone wasn't useful, he added, "They don't like the fire ... that's why they're not coming any closer."
With his free hand, he snatched a brand from the flames, choosing a branch that blazed fiercely at one end and was untouched at the other. Still, the heat was intense. Durren ignored the discomfort and, not daring to give too much consideration to what he was about to do, charged towards the nearby toad. He bellowed incoherently - did toads even have ears? - and flailed with his improvised weapon, drawing stripes of fire across the air.
For a second he thought that he was wrong and that he was charging straight into the toad's yawning mouth: no animal, he felt, should be able to open its jaw so wide. Then the toad let out a raucous trill and took a rapid rearwards hop. Somehow it managed to flop around in midair, and its second bound carried it beyond the edge of the clearing, this time heading in the right direction.
By then Durren's torch was beginning to waver, and the licking flames threatened his fingers. He threw the brand after the retreating toad, wrapped his hand in his sleeve, and dashed back to the fire to claim another. He saw that both Hule and Tia had followed his example, and Arein had belatedly recalled that she was capable of casting spells: a ball of flickering orange burned about the tip of her outstretched staff.
Durren snatched up a second branch, but by that time there was really no need. Hule and Tia had both managed to dissuade their respective foes, and Arein was having even more success. The toads evidently weren't at all happy with this being not a great deal taller than themselves who could conjure fire out of thin air. Everywhere they were backing off or turning and fleeing, accompanied by a chorus of panicked croaking.
Seconds later and the battle was over. Nothing was to be seen of the toads except for a few scattered bodies and the desolation they'd left in their wake. Durren and Hule's tent might be ruined, and Arein and Tia's had three holes in its flank, seared by acid spittle; it wouldn't be offering much in the way of shelter if the gray skies overhead should unleash their burden of rain.
"Is everyone all right?" Durren asked.
Remembering how Arein had cried out, he realized that a gash had been burned in her left sleeve and that the red of singed skin was visible through the tear. Like the tent, she had evidently fallen foul of the toads' spit. Thankfully, the burn appeared slight, and Hule already had his water flask in one hand and a roll of bandage in the other. The fighter himself was unscathed, though his boots and trousers were filthy with mud; the ground of the clearing had been churned up by feet both humanoid and toad.
Durren looked to Tia, content in the knowledge that out of all of them she was certain to have escaped harm: uncommon dexterity was only one of the traits that made her wholly unsuited to being a mere level two student. Sure enough, she wasn't even out of breath. At that moment, having plucked a throwing knife from between the bulging eyes of a dead toad, she was wiping off the violet gunk that passed for their blood in the long grass.
Tia slipped the knife back into the bandolier she wore inside her cloak. "They won't stay away for long," she said. "We need to get packed up and away from here." She turned on Durren then, and her dark gray skin was darker still for the frown she wore. "And I don't care whether you're the ranger; I'm choosing where we spend the night."
"Look," Durren said, "this wasn't my fault. I mean, it was my fault, but it could have happened to anyone."
Tia's pale eyes were bright amid the shadows of her hood. "Oh ... really?"
Her tone sent a shiver through Durren's spine, but he wasn't willing to back down. "They just - you know - wandered here. Sometimes monsters do that. I mean, wherever you camp there's always a chance of that happening."
Tia's glare somehow intensified. "Durren, this wasn't some random encounter. This happened because you picked the wrong campsite. Now are you going to stand here arguing, or are you actually going to be some help?"
He gave up. She was right. If he concentrated, he could catch the acrid odor of unclean water that should have alerted him; there was a swamp nearby, and even a brand-new first level student should have the brains to appreciate that where there was a swamp there would be something unpleasant making its home. The fact was, the tiredness of a long day trudging through the mines had made him sloppy, as the stench of goblin refuse had muted his sense of smell.
He knew he should apologize. He would have done but for Tia's manner. He wasn't the only person who'd ever made a mistake, and her inability to be pleasant or even basically well-mannered hardly counted as good teamwork. Worse, he suspected she had let him go wrong to make a point; if she'd known the spot was no good, why couldn't she simply have told him so? Her attitude was just as much a liability to their party as his own act of carelessness.
Well, maybe not just as much. Still, he had no intention of saying sorry until she did. Except that Tia never would - Durren wasn't persuaded that dun-elves understood the concept - and that meant the rest of the quest was likely to be awkward at best.
With a sigh, he plodded over to make a start on the task of hauling the toad he'd killed off the remains of his and Hule's tent. This had already been a long day, and he had a hunch that he might not have seen the worst of it yet. Bloodthirsty giant amphibians were one thing, but he'd rather face those than Tia's bad temper.
Have they seen the last of those toads?  Does Durren stand a chance against an enraged Tia?  Does giant purple toad blood wash out?  The only way you'll find the answers to these and many other questions is to grab a copy of The Black River Chronicles: The Ursvaal Exchange in a couple of week's time!

Friday, 27 October 2017

The Ursvaal Exchange Cover Reveal

There's going to be a lot happening on the Ursvaal Exchange front in the coming weeks - we're awfully close to our mid-November release date, after all - but let's start with what's, for me, the most exciting part of the whole process.  We have a cover!  And it's glorious!

That's by Kim Van Deun, who painted the second cover for Level One and who I sincerely hope will be staying with us as we move forward with this series, because he's an astounding talent and it was a real pleasure putting this together with him - or rather, making a few vague suggestions and then getting out of the way while he sprinted off into the distance.  And as much as I like seeing my name written on things, it's even more impressive in full and without all that text cluttering things up:

Cool, right?  And since I know that we live in a world of fake news and misleading book covers, let me just say here, Hule really is going to get to wield that sledgehammer!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Corporate Cthulhu Needs Your Kickstarting

But why would I want to encourage anything called Corporate Cthulhu, you ask?  That sounds horrible!  Look, it's okay ... it's just an anthology of Lovecraftian horror stories set around the concept of big business, it doesn't really mean that ancient evils from before time are trying to control every aspect of your life through the medium of capitalism.


Wait, let's not get distracted!  The point is, there's an anthology being Kickstarted right now, and my story The God Under the Church is in it, along with work from nineteen other fine authors, and it's going to be all sorts of great, I'm sure.  Look, the Kickstarter page is probably going to do a better job of explaining this, so maybe go have a look there?  And to save you a little time, here's the blurb:
Of all bureaucracies, corporations are the most powerful, seeming to have a life and will of their own. They're privately held with a multi-national reach, seemingly bottomless resources, and armies of lawyers jealously guarding their trade secrets. Corporate culture fiercely resists any attempt to change or regulate it, and anything and everything is justified by the bottom line. If ever there was a place for a cosmic horror to hide, grow, and thrive, it's deep within the paperwork of a huge bureaucratic corporation.  Who needs a Cthulhu Cult when you've got Cthulhu, Inc.?
Into this insidious world are thrust our heroes—the curious, the puzzled, and the frustrated. Defying authority, seeking answers they'd be better off not knowing, the secrets they discover threaten their sanity and their lives. Will they become the next whistleblower media hero? Or the next no-call / no-show their coworkers promptly forget? Just remember: it's nothing personal—it's just business.
Now, I'm conscious that we're in the middle of a tug of war when it comes to Mr. H. P. Lovecraft and his writings, for reasons that should really have been addressed decades ago.  And I fully understand that Lovecraft was in a considerable number of ways far less than a brilliant human being, even by the dubious standards of his age.  But he did come up with something pretty revolutionary.  I mean, cosmic horror!  That's an amazing notion right there.  And, as a writer, it's a gift that keeps on giving, a bottomless well of sinister stuff that you can take in just about any direction.  So while The God Under the Church is actually a revamp of a piece that was published some years ago in long-vanished magazine The Willows, I still have plenty of sympathy for what it was trying to accomplish: namely, to map the scariness of cosmic horror onto the rather more immediate scariness of the fact that psychotic entities known as corporations run our daily lives in ways we can barely imagine and would probably pee ourselves in terror if we ever began to fully comprehend.

And Corporate Cthulhu is a whole anthology built around that idea!  That's cool, right?  I think it is.  I actually really want to read this book, and I'm eager to see it succeed.  So why not grab a copy in advance, and help a rather exciting project to succeed?  I know I would, if evil corporations hadn't sucked up all my money and expelled it into some fathomless void of existential darkness.*  Anyway, here, once again, is the link to that Kickstarter page!

* Okay, yes, I spent all my money on weird nineties anime.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Five Minute Flashes, Part 2

The short version: Fantasycon 2017, Ready Steady Flash, Lee Harris, writing stories in five minutes in front of a live audience, myself, Guy Adams, Anna Smith Spark and Jeanette Ng.  A darkening spot upon the surface of the sun.  A hot wind with the odour of fresh blood.  Elder gods stirring in their sunken graves.  Death ... death ... death!

Alternatively, the long version is here.

So, story number three was on the topic The Night of the Kittens, which is certainly the kind of subject that someone might come up with if a lunatic jabbed a microphone in their face and demanded that they give them a short story topic.  I bet Tolstoy never had to deal with situations like this!  I bet no-one ever told Voltaire that he had a write a story about kittens in five minutes!  I bet Joyce wasn't such an attention whore that he'd have agreed to something like this in the first place!*

This one's called The Night of the Kittens, presumably because I'd briefly recovered my ability to write obvious titles at this point...
Bill knew when he bought the house that it shouldn't have been half so cheap as it was.  There was the nuclear power plant next door, for a start; nothing ought to glow like that.  And there was the fact that the estate agent kept trying to downplay the fact that the foundations were built on an ancient Indian burial ground.  And then there was the secret government facility at the end of the road, with the armed guards in dark glasses and the weird smog hovering over it.  But what were they to do?  They had to move the cat sanctuary somewhere, especially now that Bopsy, Mrs Whiskers, Purditer and Snuggles were all of them pregnant. 
In retrospect, though, Bill thought, as he nailed another plank over the cellar door and tried to ignore the weirdly shrill, distorted mewling from the other side, the decision was certainly a mistake.
Honestly, the only thing I'm remotely proud of in that one is that I managed to come up with four different silly cat names.  And one of the four was the actual name that I actually called my actual cat when I was nine, so even that's a stretch.

But for the final round I had a back-up plan, and I was just about exhausted enough by then to run with it.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I sort of had the idea for this one in mind already, as a kind of mental bomb-shelter for in case things got really bad, and it was a case of cheat a little or forfeit by hurling myself out of the nearest window.  For this final, apocalyptic round, we had a choice of three topics, which were Inside Out, Shakespeare's Brain and Interdimensional Toilets.  And the result is called, for reasons that I don't remember and probably never existed in the first place, Aristotle's Last Dance...
It was a dark and stormy night.  Three writers sat on a bench.  The first turned to the other two and said, "You know what, I was recently invited to be on a flash fiction writing contest by that bastard Lee Harris.  You had to write short stories in five minutes.  It was terrifying!"
"That sounds like the worst thing ever," said the second writer.
The third writer, who was mute, just nodded their agreement.
"So how did it go?" the second writer asked.
"Well, the first three rounds were merely hellish.  But the fourth, on the topic of Inside Out, Shakespeare's Brain or Interdimensional Toilets ... Christ, that was just impossible!"
"But you came up with something in the end, right?"
"Well, yes, in the end I did.  But it was a close run thing."
"You have to share it with us, after all this tedious build-up.  Otherwise, what are we even doing here, sitting on this bench in this middle of this dark, stormy night?"
"No," the first writer said, "I'd rather not."
One final thought, because I don't want to leave you with that awful, awful joke.  I said that the above was my mental bomb-shelter, but in fact, I had a backup plan for my backup plan.  If all else failed, I was planning to read the limerick that I'd written a couple of days before and try and pass it off as in some way a response to the actual topic.  So here, by way of dropping the curtain on the tragic drama that was my Ready, Steady Flash experience, is said limerick...
There was a young porpoise named Maurice,
Whose skin was excessively porous,
He shouldn't have ought to
Gone under the water,
That tragic, unfortunate porpoise.
I'm convinced that if I'd got to read my limerick I would totally have won.

* I'm kidding, of course.  James Joyce would have lapped up Ready, Steady Flash and come back for seconds.  Yeah, Joyce, you heard me right!